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Downtown Crossing Resident: Vagrancy, Drugs Are Impediments To Revitalization08:31

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Downtown Crossing resident Julie Ogden is conflicted over her desire to help the homeless and her support for high-end housing she thinks will revitalize the area. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
Downtown Crossing resident Julie Ogden is conflicted over her desire to help the homeless and her support for high-end housing she thinks will revitalize the area. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Ahead of Boston’s mayoral election, we’re visiting the city’s neighborhoods to find out what challenges they face and what voters there want in a new mayor.

In Downtown Crossing, we met 38-year-old Julie Ogden, who's active in several neighborhood groups, works in outreach at St. Anthony's Shrine, and lives in a condo on Washington Street. She and her husband are expecting their first child in December.

Ogden said she hopes all the development going on in the area -- including the 55-story condo tower and new office space at the old Filene's site — will completely revitalize her neighborhood. But she's concerned that vagrancy and drug activity could be an obstacle to its success — and could ultimately determine whether her growing family moves elsewhere.

Julie Ogden: We do have a lot of homeless that camp out here under the Macy's awnings, and with all the scaffolding up for the different building projects, there are lots of nooks and crannies where they can build overnight shelters. That's not good for the residents that live here. It's not healthy. It presents a host of littering issues and just waste that ends up on the street the next morning.

Deborah Becker: So what would the next mayor do, then? Provide more services for the homeless? More housing for the homeless? What would you like to see?

I would definitely like to see more services for the homeless. I would also like to see the next mayor really engage the residents of the community and work together with the nonprofit organizations that are already in the area. We have homeless shelters in every direction from where we're standing. They're just overpopulated. And there's also issues of people with mental health and substance abuse that simply won't go into the overnight shelters. They prefer to be on the street. So that's a huge social issue that needs to be tackled.

I'm wondering what you think, though, about affordable housing — which is always an issue. It's an issue in every neighborhood in Boston. But what will this development and other construction going on here do? This is supposed to be high-end.

Quite frankly, I'm hoping as a resident it is high end. I'm hoping that it does change the area for the better. Certainly we want to see affordable housing go in. But I'm also leaning more toward — as someone who lives in the community and is looking for this area, Downtown Crossing, to become like a Back Bay, like a Beacon Hill, with the nice shops and restaurants — that there is a nice mix and that there are some upscale clientele that go in.

With affordable housing, as well, though? Should that be a priority or not for this particular area, do you think? Hard to say?

It's hard to say.

Well, should we walk around and you can show us a little bit? You're also right near the Common, which really exemplifies, also, some of the issues you're talking about. So maybe we should take a walk, and you can tell us a little more.


So here we are on Winter Street, and we're walking up here by an alleyway and there's an overpowering smell of urine.

There is.

Is it always like that?

It's not. Sometimes it's worse than others. On a hot summer day, it's really bad. But we have the ambassadors from the Boston BID who do come through with power washers, and they do a great job of trying to keep the area clean and less smelly.

And the BID is?

The BID is Boston's Business Improvement District. And they focus on this area of Downtown Crossing. I believe it's about 34 square blocks. But we really, as a community, need to do a better job of keeping up with it. And the vagrancy — I mean, it's tough.

And actually, we can hear, behind us, someone singing. And he's panhandling and singing, and people are giving him money.

They are. We do have a lot of panhandling in this area. But we have, also, a lot of Starbucks and 7-11s and Dunkin Donuts in areas where the panhandlers tend to congregate and get their loose change for the day.

So here we are at Boston Common. We're in front of the Park Street T station. It's a beautiful day and there are all kinds of people here, it looks like. There are tourists here. There are workers here — it looks like they're taking a break.


Students, skateboarders, families with children, joggers, and of course there are people who look like they're camped out here and living here. So it runs the gamut.

It does run the gamut. And I think that to some degree, living in the city, you expect a certain level of the vagrancy and the panhandling. But it's really exploded in the past few months, and I think that the next mayor is really going to have to address these issues.

So you think it's gotten worse in just the past few months?

It absolutely has.

And why, what are you seeing?

I've noticed quite a bit of drug interaction happening right here on the Common. There are certain paths, like this one that we're about to walk up now, that just seems to me to be an open air drug market. And you'll smell stuff as we walk past.

Well, small amounts of marijuana aren't necessarily illegal anymore. It's more than that?

But again, it's a quality of life issue. If you're pushing your baby carriage through the park on the way to the playground or the Frog Pond over here, you don't necessarily want to be surrounded by that.

Have you talked with the police about what you've seen here and the fact that you think it's become almost like an open air drug market in this area of the Common?


What do they say?

Well, they've told us that while the crime stats in the area are down overall, the Common has seen a rise, an increase, in robberies and definite drug activity — heroin, crack, marijuana. But we really need to see something being done about it.

What can the next mayor do, do you think, to address some of your concerns and still — I smell marijuana right now, actually.

Yup. There you go.

I think, again, the mayor can just be aware that this is an issue and talk to the people in the community.

You would want to see more police patrols on the Common? Would you want to see more foot patrols?

Certainly. Police would help. Maybe additional park rangers.

And you've got an interesting perspective on this, because you work at St. Anthony's Shrine right here in Downtown Crossing, that deals with a lot of these issues.

I do. We have over 30 ministries that work to support those in need.

So can we walk over to St. Anthony's Shrine?


OK, so now we are on Arch Street in front of St. Anthony's Shrine, which is where you work, and ironically where many of the people who we've just mentioned who contribute to some of the concerns that you have about the area are also the people served by St. Anthony's Shrine.


That's difficult.

And that is a personal challenge that I face, because I do believe that the population deserves assistance and that people who are in need should have a place to come for these services. But at the end of the day when I walk home after work, I sometimes see the same people that we've been serving are sleeping in my doorway.

You don't regret moving here?

Absolutely not.

Despite some of the challenges that we've been talking about.


But you are expecting your first child, and you have things to think about if you're going to stay here.

We do — the schools for sure. There's been a lot of talk about schools, and certainly as our child grows up, that's going to be at the forefront of our decision-making process. Do we stay downtown, stay in the city of Boston at all, or do we move out to the suburbs?

The explosion of homelessness was confirmed this week by state leaders, who say the number of families seeking state assistance to shelter in motels surged over the summer and is now at an all-time high.

This article was originally published on October 16, 2013.

This program aired on October 16, 2013.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.




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